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Out of the shadows
Monday 16 August 2010
Out of the shadows
IT began in darkness. As Jeremy Chambers lay in bed, too weak to read or write, voices and images, stories from a decade earlier flooded his memory.
"They were all very vivid, very detailed," he says. "I was almost assaulted by them."
From 2000 until 2005, Chambers was bedridden with chronic fatigue syndrome and suffering from photophobia. "I was so weak, but my mind was just churning away," he says, sitting in the courtyard of the Standard Hotel in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. "It was a bit of nostalgia. I was remembering being quite strong and being able to work a full day." Not one to rush his thoughts, Chambers pauses for a moment longer than usual. "And the sun," he says.
From the time he was 15 until his second year as a student at the University of Melbourne, Chambers spent his summers and school holidays as a vineyard labourer in Victoria's northeast. During his long illness, which began in 1997, he recalled that work, recounting to himself the stories the workers told to pass the time. Eventually he started composing a novel in his head.
The whole thing just came out, Chambers says of his debut novel, The Vintage and the Gleaning. "I know this sounds a bit like Soviet poets in prison, but I did actually write in my head and memorise long passages. My brain was working. Just nothing else was."
The Vintage and the Gleaning is set in the late 1980s in a winemaking town in northeast Victoria. The setting and subject run through Chambers' bloodline. For more than 150 years, his family has been making wine in that region. "My great-great-grandmother grew rose bushes for vineyard fences," he says, and his uncle produces wine there under the label Chambers Rosewood Vineyards.
Chambers, who was born in 1974 and grew up in Melbourne, recounts his family's winemaking history as though it were a multi-generational saga waiting for him to fictionalise. "That's probably best avoided," he says, laughing. "I've got a 'you can't go home again' mentality already. I'm not sure how they're going to react to my novel. I went out of my way to make sure that there was no one in the book who could possibly resemble anyone in my family." The novel is, however, dedicated to his father.
"He's always encouraged my writing," Chambers says, but also "he sent me up there to work when I really didn't want to go. When you're 15, 16, you don't want to spend the holidays working. Those summers, I spent the life of a labourer. You work during the day. You go to the pub and drink until teatime. Friday nights, everyone would get very, very drunk. And Sundays, you start drinking in the morning and drink all day."
Although several other labourers were his age, most were decades older. Unlike Chambers, everyone else was from the country. "The workers had a book going on who would be the hardest worker," he says. "I had the worst odds because I was from the city. Then, at the end of the summer, the foreman pulled me aside and bought me a brandy. He told me about the book and said that I had come out on top."
Dressed in jeans and leather jacket, and 20 years after that conversation, Chambers recalls with pride what the foreman said next: "Now you know how the other half lives." The moment would help to define Chambers as both individual and writer.
"And it's true," he says of the foreman's words. "They were making $6 an hour. They worked hard and had a lot of pride in their work. And life was working and drinking and Tattslotto. There was a big distinction between the winemakers and the workers, a definite class system. When my uncle came out to check on how things were going, the workers kept their heads down, not speaking until spoken to. It was a new world for me."
The Vintage and the Gleaning examines the kinds of social divides that Chambers experienced. There's an obvious nod to The Sound and the Fury in Chambers's title, and he cites William Faulkner's fiction as a significant influence on his work. "I was completely enamoured with Faulkner when I was at university, and I still am today," he says. "I read Absalom, Absalom! again recently. It reads beautifully."
Chambers wrote a thesis on Faulkner to get into honours English at the University of Melbourne. Then, in late 1997, during university exams, he fell ill. It started with glandular fever, and from that moment his health declined until, in 2000, he was bedridden. "By then," he says, "my state was becoming serious."
That was the point at which he began telling himself the story now published as The Vintage and the Gleaning, a work Alex Miller has called "one of the most irresistible novels I've read in a long time" and which M.J. Hyland deems "a wonderful, gripping story, beautifully told".
For 10 years, as he battled his illness, Chambers continued to worked on his novel.
"It's very complex," he says of chronic fatigue syndrome. "In the early stages, it can act like an auto-immune disease. What was making me so sick then was, basically, my immune system was attacking my body. My doctor found out about an antiviral drug and got me put on a trial. It was $US100,000 a year, so there was no other way I would have been able to afford it."
When Chambers was at last back on his feet, he returned immediately to university with plans to finish his degree. "By then I had become very interested in trauma and writing," he says, "and the focus of my work became about trauma and nonsense in Spike Milligan. But then I went off the drug and everything fell apart. I wanted to get the thesis finished and try to get to get my health back and get some sort of normal job. Everything fell apart."
It wasn't until 2007 that Chambers would be strong enough to start writing seriously. By then, The Vintage and the Gleaning had been in his head for seven years, with notes scattered through several journals. "A lot of it just came on to the page because it had been in my head for so long," he says.
The voice that Chambers had been hearing for nearly a decade is that of his narrator, Smithy, a retired shearer turned vineyard worker. Smithy's voice, along with those of the other workers, helped sustain him through his illness. Chambers says, "I could remember exactly how the workers spoke. I found their accents very Australian, flat and hard, but more northern English. At first I couldn't understand them. Most other people couldn't, either."
As a narrator, Smithy moves easily between simple, stage-direction-like descriptions and moments of poetic intensity. In doing so, The Vintage and the Gleaning bears traces of writers whom Chambers cites as influences, including Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Alex Miller. The novel's lengthy passages of dialogue instil the book with a sharp playfulness; Chambers could have a future not only as a novelist but also as a dramatist. It wasn't until after finishing the novel, however, that he first saw the influence of dramatists, mainly that of Samuel Beckett, on his work.
"The way they talk in the vineyards, the repetitions, how they talk," he says. "There's so little to talk about. They'll just drag things out as long as they can. I realised that this is what you get in Beckett's plays."
Chambers grows animated when he speaks of writers and reading. With his soft voice, warming his hands around a mug of black tea, he leans forward to name Christina Stead as his favourite Australian novelist. He has a fondness for central and eastern European writers, among them Danilo Kis, Bohumil Hrabal and Thomas Bernhard. A recent discovery was Sydney Bridge Upside Down by New Zealander David Ballantyne. "I was just blown away by it," Chambers says. "People talk about unrecognised masterpieces. This really is one."
While another writer may have grown discouraged and abandoned a work-in-progress during such a lengthy illness, Chambers pushed through, bringing to mind the anecdote that Tom Stoppard tells in his play Travesties. When one character asks James Joyce what he did during World War I, Stoppard has Joyce say, "I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?"
"My immune system is still suppressed," Chambers says. "But I'm walking." And although he's no longer able to work in the vineyards, he now enjoys growing fruit trees in his backyard. "You prune them. You try to make them look good, try and give shape to them." Then, turning back to his writing, he says, "What I wanted to do with this novel, being a first novel, was just do a well-made novel, something simple. I just wanted to do a well-made novel, something solid."
The article originally appeared here.
The Vintage and the Gleaning has been reviewed at The Australian here.
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